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The Woodlands Township saw many events, activities and issues in 2018

December 29, 2018

As 2018 draws to a close, we take a look back at the biggest and most interesting news stories in The Woodlands Township.

From the departure of the iconic Waterway Cruisers, which were irreparably damaged in Hurricane Harvey, to the “monster house” and a controversial dispute between residents and a local church, The Woodlands saw its share of news and interesting events in the past 12 months. Here are some of the most prominent stories of 2018.

Incorporation studies

One of the biggest issues facing The Woodlands is the issue of incorporation, or the township becoming a city. In 2018, The Woodlands Township Board of Directors embarked on what has been the most thorough and comprehensive analysis of incorporation — an ongoing series of studies done for the entirety of 2018 by two different consulting groups, the Matrix Consulting Group and the Novak Consulting Group.

The Woodlands has explored the idea of incorporation before, in 2011, but those studies were less intensive and according to many, included erroneous information that in 2018 was known to be inaccurate.

The process of incorporation, said township Board Chairman Gordy Bunch during the September public forum on the process, has been triggered by several events that township leaders and residents feel affect the future of the community, notably a lack of control over many of the roads and mobility projects around The Woodlands, the flooding and resulting quest for a drainage solution in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and the possibility of The Woodlands being split into two segments and annexed by Houston, Conroe or both sometime in the next 30 years.

The incorporation study and planning sessions were scheduled roughly twice a month for most of 2018, with consultants providing information, data, analysis and reports to the Board of Directors on topics such as municipal utility districts, road and pavement maintenance, financial models, law enforcement issues and other topics.

While the township had hoped to get more resident engagement, as the process continued through the year there was a lack of residents present at many of the meetings. Those who did attend often spoke in public comment against the process, with some saying there was no need, it was a waste of taxpayer money and that the township was moving too fast with the process.

Whether or not The Woodlands incorporates is still up in the air. According to Bunch, the township Board of Directors would first have to vote to approve placing an incorporation question on the ballot. If that happens, then residents would vote yes or no to incorporate. While no timeline has been set, some officials said the vote on the issue could come as early as November, 2019, depending on various elements that have yet to be discussed, most importantly the potential financial model for a new city.

Waterway Cruisers depart

Although The Woodlands is considered one of the most famous master-planned communities in the nation, many people have identified the community over the years by the Waterway Cruisers, a fleet of six European-style canal boats that ferried tourists, residents and others up and down The Woodlands Waterway from The Woodlands Mall to Hughes Landing.

The cruisers suffered a severe blow during Hurricane Harvey, with the massive rain system leaving the boats flooded and damaged. By December of 2017, the operator of the boats had managed to repair one of the watercraft and put it back into service. However, that didn’t last long, as with five weeks, the lone cruiser broke down and its electrical motor proved too difficult to repair.

After the last cruiser was deemed unusuble, township officials began to examine if the boats were salvagable or not and if the watercraft could not be restored to working conditions, what would replace them as a watery recreational opportunity.

By summer, the six cruisers were officially declared “dead” by township officials, who moved quickly to add a new amenity to the water: pedal-powered swan boats. The new swan boats can seat two people and are rentable for use by anyone.

The Waterway Cruisers were removed from their longtime home dock near The Woodlands Mall and transported to their new home in Florida, where a marine salvage company will attempt to put them back into service in the future in Florida.

Former Villager publisher dies

Ray Biggerstaff had a larger-than-life presence in The Woodlands as the published of The Woodlands Villager.

For nearly three decades, Biggerstaff was an integral part of the Houston Community Newspapers publications, The Villager and The Courier. He took over as publisher of the two papers in 2011, before retiring two years later. His positions with HCN made him not only integral to the newspapers, but to the community itself - the go-to man for community members and leaders.

On Sunday morning, the day before Christmas Eve, Biggerstaff passed away at the age of 74 after a years-long battle with a chronic inflammatory lung disease, COPD.

Ray Biggerstaff had a larger-than-life presence in The Woodlands.

For nearly three decades, Biggerstaff was an integral part of the Houston Community Newspapers publications. The Villager and The Courier. He took over as publisher of the two papers in 2011, before retiring two years later. His positions with HCN made him not only integral to the newspapers, but to the community itself - the go-to man for community members and leaders.

On Sunday morning, the day before Christmas Eve, Biggerstaff passed away at the age of 74 after a years-long battle with a chronic inflammatory lung disease, COPD.

“Ray is known by one and all in The Woodlands,” said Paul Lazzaro, former vice president of marketing for The Woodlands Township. “He was a fabulous, honest, trustworthy, intelligent man.”

According to Lazzaro, a memorial service for Biggerstaff is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Jan.12, at Brookside Funeral Home, located at the intersection of FM 1960 and TC Jester.

LGBT Pride comes to community

Jason Rocha, CEO and founder of The Woodlands Pride, is a U.S. Army veteran who said he wants to bring acceptance, inclusion and unity to Montgomery County for everyone in the LGBTQIA community as well as their supporters.

Rocha founded the inaugural The Woodlands Pride Festival, creating a team of volunteers who worked diligently for several months leading up to the early September festival that celebrated LGBT culture and pride. Several thousand attendees descended on Town Green Park for the festival, which featured live music, food booths, speeches and drag queens.

St. Anthony of Padua controversy finally ends

After more than two years of contentious disputes, angry residents and picketing, the controversy over the expansion of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church finally came to an end in November.

The church had been accused by township DSC officials of a raft of issues that violated township covenants, but it was the improper chopping down of dozens of trees and shrubs in a mandatory forest buffer between the church and residents of the Laurelhurst neighborhood that had ignited the passions of many residents.

After feisty meetings at the DSC in April, May and June, township officials threatened legal action against the church if officials did not remedy eight to 10 different issues, including replanting dozens of trees and shrubs in the buffer zone as well as around the property. After complying with all the requirements, the church was cleared by township officials and no legal action was taken.

Challenging year for fire department

The year of 2018 at The Woodlands Fire Department will remembered for additional equipment, new trucks, but also controversy and sadness.

Julie Thomas, a former employee of The Woodland Fire Department, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the township and President and General Manager Don Norrell for alleged sexual harassment and wrongful termination of employment. She worked as a customer service representative for the department and has said in the lawsuit that during her employment she was subjected to frequent sexual harassment with pervasive comments about her appearance, clothing and body. Thomas later settled the case out of court, receiving slightly less than $100,000 in compensation.

Then, in October, Nicolas Daniel, a firefighter with The Woodlands Fire Department, was shot numerous times and killed in a struggle at a rural Montgomery County home. The incident is under investigation and no arrest has been made.

In other fire department news, a new dual-steering wheel fire truck was unveiled and is now in use. The truck allows firefighters more flexibility when responding to incidents in tight spaces, as the dual steering system allows for better turning. The truck has a ladder that can reach up to more than 100 feet, important when a fire may happen in one of the many high-rise offices in the township.

The fire department also was able to buy numerous high-water vehicles and boats to supplement their existing fleet, which was put to the test in Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Community mourns death of Bush

As the holiday season was just getting going, sad news hit both the Houston region as well as the entire nation when former President George H.W. Bush died on Dec. 2.

Bush, the 41st president of the United States, and father to numerous other politicians and elected officials, including his son, former President George W. Bush, had left a powerful impression on Montgomery County, notably local House of Representatives member Kevin Brady.

After Bush’s death, accolades and old stories of the eloquent Texas statesmen flowed in from all corners of the county. Bush was fondly remembered by officials at the John Cooper School, who had hosted the former president at the school’s first graduation more than two decades earlier.

And, Brady — now chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in Congress — shared his recollections of a life helped and in-part guided by the mentorship of Bush, who had retired to Houston after his one term in office. After Bush’s body lied in state in Washington, D.C., his casket was flown back to Houston and put on a ceremonial train which traveled from Spring to College Station, along a route filled with tens of thousands of locals paying their tribute to the 41st president.

jeff.forward@chron.com

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